WASHINGTON -- Faced with its gravest threat in years from the Supreme Court, one of the country's largest labor unions is preparing for a ruling that could make it much more difficult to collect fees from the workers it represents.
This weekend, the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution pledging to speak individually with each of its 1.6 million members about getting more involved in the union. According to the resolution, union officials are developing a plan they hope will double the number of union activists in their ranks.
The subtext of the move has to do with Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that the Supreme Court recently announced it will hear in autumn. An unfavorable ruling for public-sector unions could ban what are known as fair share agreements, which require that all workers pay fees to the union to help cover the costs of collective bargaining. A union like the AFT must represent all the workers under a given contract, so the union says it's only fair that everyone contributes.
Though the legitimacy of fair share fees was upheld by the court decades ago, Justice Samuel Alito signaled in another recent union case, Harris v. Quinn, that the conservative-leaning court might strike down fair share fees on the basis of the First Amendment. Due to the financial impact that would have, Friedrichs is widely seen as a case that could devastate public-sector unionism.
The obvious solution, many unions have recognized, is to convince workers of their unions' relevance, so that they support the union even if the court gives them an opportunity to opt out.
"We started talking about it well before Friedrichs, and well before Harris v. Quinn, but I do see it as the antidote to Friedrichs," AFT President Randi Weingarten told The Huffington Post.
"Friedrichs is simply about destroying unions," she said. "It's about trying to starve unions of any kind of funding structure they have."
Fair share fees act as reduced union dues, since by law the fees cannot go to the union's political activities. According to the AFT, about 10 percent of the workers covered by its contracts choose to pay fair share fees rather than full union dues. In the event of a Friedrichs ruling unfriendly to labor, many of those workers -- and perhaps more -- may choose not to contribute at all.
The key, according to Weingarten, is to make workers feel more invested and involved in their unions. While the union hopes to reach those workers who aren't full members yet, "it's much bigger than that," she said.
"Ultimately, what we've learned is you have to have a real, ongoing recommitment with your members," said Weingarten. "You have to walk the walk. You have to engage with them... The change here is to have an enduring relationship."
Friedrichs is only the latest development that's forced unions to assert their importance. In 2011, the state of Wisconsin stripped most public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights, causing member rolls in the state's public-sector unions to plummet. A number of states have also recently passed right-to-work laws, which bar contracts between unions and employers that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. Nationwide, union membership on the whole has been falling for decades.
But the Friedrichs threat, in particular, could light a fire under public-sector unions. Like the AFT, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been organizing internally for the past year and a half. The union, which represents 1.6 million workers and retirees, recently told The Washington Post it has brought on 140,000 full members since the beginning of 2014 in response to attacks like Friedrichs. "I think we took things for granted," Lee Saunders, AFSCME's president, told the paper.
Considering all the threats to public-sector collective bargaining, Weingarten said unions need to convince members that they're more than just a fallback when you run into trouble on the job.
"It's not thinking of a union as an insurance policy, but as a place to engage and feel fulfilled," she said.